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Inside Sweden's Notorious Underground Fight Club
KOTS' unsanctioned brawls bring together unfettered ultimate fighting with an increasingly emboldened alliance of violent soccer hooliganism, far-right extremists and neo-Nazis.
Hello readers—I am on vacation this week but thought I would share my longform from last year which took a look at Sweden’s notorious underground fight club and the cast of characters—hooligans, streetfighters, and Nazis—who thrive on the violence.
There is a scar across Simon "The Savage" Henriksen's face—a deep horizontal cut carved along his left cheek—that tells the tale of wars waged and battles won.
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As he jogs toward the centre of the cage, the scar glows greyish-brown beneath the spotlight, accentuating his dead eyes and hardened jaw.
The Danish hooligan takes in his surroundings—the rectangular cage made of orange metal fencing, the concrete floor speckled with blood, the spectators clad in skull face masks and balaclavas—that set the scene for King of the Streets: a "no rules, no rounds" bare knuckle fight club that has played host to some of the most notorious neo-Nazis in Europe.
Across from Simon stands a masked hooligan who goes by the nom de guerre Ronin 030. They shake hands and nod in respect. Simon turns to the crowd and slaps his face repeatedly, working himself and the crowd into a state of violent frenzy. He pulls off his crimson-colored T-shirt, takes a Muay Thai stance—elbows tucked in and feet shoulder width apart—and waits. The referee brings his tattooed hands together.
Clap. Clap. Time to fight.
Simon moves swiftly, lurching forward and forcing Ronin against the metal fence, pinning him there. This is his fifth fight for King of the Streets—the most of any competitor in the fight club's mysterious history—and he is yet to taste defeat. He pushes forward again, this time grasping Ronin's head in a Muay Thai clinch before landing a knee on the taller man's chest, buckling him slightly. The crowd roars its approval.
Simon fights like an enraged tiger. When he grows bored with his prey, he delivers two punches to Ronin's temple that send the taller man tumbling backwards. Ronin's head slams against the concrete with a sickening thud. Simon stands over his fallen foe, his right fist raised in the air triumphantly as the crowd rages all around him. Officials swarm the fallen fighter, who remains motionless until the camera fades to black.
"This is amazing," reads a YouTube comment beneath a video of Simon's fight with Ronin 030, which drew more than 2.7 million views. "This is the true UFC!"
'The Most Stressed Out and Fucked Up Environment You Can Find'
King of the Streets (KOTS) originated in Gothenburg, home to Sweden's most popular soccer team, in around 2013. By 2018, prominent hooligans from across Europe were signing up for their unsanctioned brawls, which can draw a million views on YouTube.
But unlike combat sports, KOTS' unsanctioned brawls bring together unfettered ultimate fighting with an increasingly emboldened alliance of violent soccer hooliganism and far-right extremists and neo-Nazis.
Held in abandoned warehouses throughout Sweden, fights are fashioned after David Fincher's 1999 film Fight Club (based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk), which has found new life for supposed glorification of hypermasculinity as an escape from late capitalism. Few outsiders have ever attended a KOTS fight in person.
This mystique has contributed to its popularity on social media. Most of the fights are available on YouTube, where the KOTS channel has more than 500,000 subscribers. Though its Twitter account was recently suspended for violating the social media platform's terms of service, KOTS is active on Facebook and Instagram.
"No decisions, No Rules, No Rounds" is how KOTS describes itself on its slick website. "The most notorious fight club, the one and only place for the unwanted ones, delivering the most stressed out and fucked up environment you can find. 13 fights. 13 knockouts. 400 hooligans."
Fighters are free to cover their faces with skull face masks and balaclavas, but you won't see the open-palm gloves that are required for UFC fights—fighters' hands must remain bare. The plywood flooring that you'll find at most MMA and boxing events isn't used here; instead, fights take place on concrete floors. Moves that are banned by the UFC—headbutts, strikes to the spine, eye gouging, and biting—are acceptable. There's also no prohibition on performance-enhancing drugs.
All of this creates plenty of unprecedented yet entirely predictable dangers—enough to deter certain hardened European hooligans.
"Some German hooligans who are active in semi-professional combat sports said that they would never fight there because they believe it is dangerous to fight on concrete,"
Robert Claus, an expert on right-wing extremism in German soccer and the author of "Hooligans: A world between football, violence," told me. "They think it might ruin your body and your career if you get knocked out and hit the floor with your head. Then, it's all over."
But it's not just the physical risks that give cause for alarm.
Whether by accident or by design, KOTS has become a platform for some of the most notorious hatemongers across Europe, united by a shared penchant for violence and a mutual affection for combat sports.
As Claus says, the fascination with "ideas of violent masculinity" that's shared by some hooligans and combat athletes "has always been a giant, social Darwinist door to the far right."
I first became aware of KOTS last year while researching the European far-right. The fight club's videos were popular among neo-Nazis and hooligan groups that have flourished on alternative social media platforms such as Telegram.
Given the secrecy that shrouds KOTS events, it would have been tricky to attend an event in person. And as a dark-skinned Egyptian, I was reluctant to put myself in that position, even though non-white fighters have occasionally competed for the organization.
Still, I wanted to better understand what KOTS is really about and whether it poses a serious threat. Most of the KOTS fighters I reached out to ignored my request, but then one got back to me: Brian Hooi, a Dutch MMA fighter who's Black, and has appeared as "HooiBooi" in two KOTS fights during the past year.
Hooi, who has since transitioned back to professional MMA, wouldn't agree to an interview, but said he would answer questions over text on WhatApp. When I asked him what had attracted him to KOTS, he told me that, as a kid, "Fight Club" had been one of his favorite movies, and that he remains fascinated by underground fight culture and the "extreme adrenaline rush" that comes with it.
"When I was younger, I was always trying to find underground fight clubs like these, and now I finally found one." Hooi wrote.
"I was never concerned about the concrete floor," Hooi wrote. "You know what you signed up for. So if you're scared about it, don't compete. Nobody is forcing you to fight."
Meanwhile, using a fake name, I began the process of applying to compete in a KOTS event.
Applications to compete are sent out via Telegram, the alternative social media application popular among both anti-fascists and the far right. After I expressed interest, a "fight application" came back that asked a range of questions: Age, height, weight, and experience, including amateur and professional fight records. Applicants are also asked about their "streetfighting/hooligan background, if you have one."
Typically, applicants are matched up according to their weight and experience. But according to the KOTS website, "if it's a beef fight where two people want to settle their problems with fighting each other, we will not care about the weight or experience."
(KOTS did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
One mystery I couldn't solve was how much money is being made, both by KOTS and the fighters.
Back in 2019, the fight club started live streaming its events and charging around $14 per fight. It has also set up a merchandise store to sell bandanas ($29) and T-shirts ($45) emblazoned with the KOTS logo. But it's not clear how profitable it is – or, crucially, what KOTS does with the money it pulls in.
According to Claus, KOTS is known to cover fighters' travel and accommodation. The KOTS website does refer to "prize money," which it says "depends on your level," though Clause says it's not clear if fighters are paid to get in the ring.
For many of the fighters, that might be OK.
"The currency in which KOTS fighters are paid in is respect for masculinity— their idea of tough, violent, unmodern masculinity," Claus said. "This public respect from other violent hooligans seems to be the most important thing for them."
'ISIS Welcome, Nazis Welcome'
In the 1960s, European governments became concerned with the trend of violent behavior perpetrated by spectators during soccer events. Gangs of violent supporters consisting of young men united through their shared ties to a specific team, would confront opposing fans before, during, or after a match either at stadiums or elsewhere, resulting in injuries, deaths, and wide scale disturbances. This emerging subculture became known as hooliganism.
Following vigorous efforts by governments and law enforcement to reduce the scale of hooliganism across the United Kingdom and Europe, gangs of rival fans have resorted to using social media to plan group fights at discrete locations instead of the spontaneous brawls that took place during matches in the 1970s-80s.
Some of the most prominent hooligan groups can be found in Russia, Turkey, as well as in Western European countries such as Germany, Italy, Spain, France, and The Netherlands. And while many of these hooligan groups are made up of men who simply enjoy fighting, others are fueled by associations with outright fascist groups and the far right.
It's from this world of soccer hooliganism that KOTS has emerged.
Simon the Savage—KOTS' most winning fighter—is himself a hooligan representing the "New Gen" firm, which is one of several violent hooligan groups associated with Denmark's Brøndby IF soccer club. (He declined my request to answer questions about his involvement.) He also appears to be affiliated with the Bandidos Motorcycle Club, the second-largest motorcycle club in the world (after the Hells Angels), which the US Department of Justice and Europolis have classified as an organized criminal syndicate. The group is responsible for crimes such as money laundering, arms trafficking, extortion, drug dealing, sex trafficking, and murder.
KOTS itself appears to have been an outgrowth of Sweden's hooligan scene, which boasts at least seven significant hooligan groups known for arranging groups fights in remote locations across the country.
But just as it's not clear that Swedish and other European hooligans are looking to spread a specific ideology – the violent spectacle is the point – it appears that the same is true for KOTS.
"The Swedish football hooligan scene is very non-political for the most part so extremists have been forced to choose between football and politics. KOTS is sort of like that," says Jonathan Leman, a researcher with Expo, a Swedish anti-racist magazine. "My perspective is that it is neither fascist, nor anti-fascist… It is more about the fighting."
KOTS insists that it's apolitical. Recently, a screenshot was posted on KOTS' Instagram stories (which disappear after 24 hours) along with the caption, "Everyone please shut the fuck up now." In the exchange, a fan asked why the fight club allows anti-fascists to compete. KOTS replied: "Everyone welcome to fight club. We don't give a fuck. ISIS is welcome. Terrorists welcome. Nazi welcome. AFA welcome. We don't care."
And yet, it's not that simple. Far-right extremists and neo-Nazis—both of which have established fanbases that preach physical fitness, romanticize competitive violence, and revere hyper-masculinity—have found KOTS.
Yanek, a hooligan representing SK Wallis, a Swiss hooligan firm made up of neo-Nazis, has fought twice with KOTS, in October 2020 and again in 2021. The fight club has also featured Tom Neubert, a neo-Nazi hooligan who competed for the infamous German-based far-right organization Kampf der Nibelungen (KdN), best known for hosting MMA events during an annual far-right festival held in celebration of Adolf Hitler's birthday. He also competed for "F1ght K1ngs" in Ukraine, another MMA organization known for its ties to neo-Nazis.
KOTS has also hosted featured fights involving "Orange Dwarf," a hooligan representing the Apoel football club who was celebrated across far-right social media channels following his victory against a Turkish streetfighter.
The Rise of Fascist Fight Clubs
The fact that neo-Nazis and other extremists are drawn to violence—whether through legitimate combat sports such as MMA, or through soccer hooliganism, or something like KOTS—is a relatively new development that has taken shape over the past decade.
Take the case of White Rex, a Russian apparel brand whose hoodies and sports gear carry neo-nazi symbols. The brand's founder, Denis Kaputsin—also known as Denis Nikitin—was radicalized in Germany's soccer hooligan circles and later used his knowledge of the combat fighting scene to launch a successful business and become a key figure in the European far-right scene. Eventually, he was banned from entering the European Union's Schengen zone, but his clothing line remains popular among combat sports enthusiasts who share the brand's far-right ideology.
In April 2021, "Zvonko," a streetfighter representing Germany and Croatia, and "Tomasz," a French hooligan representing Losc Army, a fascist soccer hooligan group based in Lillie, France—stepped into the makeshift ring and prepared for battle.
Zvonko strikes first, but Tomasz responds with a flurry of well-placed punches to the ribs and temple.
As the camera pans over the fighters, the fascist body art that covers Tomasz is on full display: a white power tattoo across his neck, the face of Rudolf Hess – Hitler's deputy in Germany's Nazi Party – on his arm, and several swastikas elsewhere on his body.
"Tomasz" is Tomasz Szkatulski, a far right extremist linked to various neo-Nazi groups including the international Blood and Honor network, a white supremacist group that's banned in Russia and Germany, and has been added to the list of designated terrorist groups in Canada.
In addition to being one of the most notorious neo-Nazis involved in the combat sports scene, he is also the founder of Pride France, an MMA lifestyle clothing line that promotes itself as a "brand for nationalists" and sells streetwear and fight gear emblazoned with neo-Nazi symbolism.
Some of Pride France's most egregious clothing items include its HTLR women's t-shirt and others that display slogans like "Zero Zolerance." The fascist brand also has a "Halloween" themed shirt depicting a smiling Ku Klux Klan caricature with a noose and a flaming torch, as well as a selection of children's clothing with similar white supremacist slogans. Even the Pride France logo—an amalgamation of several interconnected swastikas with the slogan "Respect Nature"—is a testament to its commitment to fascism.
Szkatulski has reportedly been arrested on numerous occasions, including a conviction for attacking a homeless man with a bicycle chain because he was of North African descent. Though the extremist claimed that the attack had "nothing to do with his views," he was handed a 12-month prison sentence at the time, which included a six-month suspended term.
Szkatulski was also reportedly involved in two separate attacks on the customers of a gay bar in Lille, both of which were orchestrated by known neo-Nazis and skinheads.
The April fight got KOTS approximately 492,000 views on YouTube and – presumably – helped introduce a sizable portion of Szkatulski's fans to the underground club.
'Like in the gladiator times'
"By recruiting heavily from soccer's violent hooligan world," Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss wrote in her acclaimed book "Hate in the Homeland: The New Far-Right," "the far right can use the MMA scene to transform what has long been an alcohol-laden, street brawl subculture into a more coherent, disciplined, and regulated scene."
"There is a valorization of violence and of hyper masculine ideals around defense and sacrifice that align well with the far right's messaging around the need to defend national or racialized territory or to prepare for the race war they anticipate and the street battles that will supposedly be a part of it," said Miller-Idriss, who directs the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University.
Whether it cultivates neo-Nazi and white supremacists or not, it's clear that KOTS welcomes extremists with open arms – as warriors. And it is precisely the fight club's ambivalence towards the rising threat of far-right extremism in combat sports that could make it a potential recruiting ground for the far right.
While fighters might proudly mimic Tyler Durden, the central figure in Fight Club portrayed by Brad Pitt, many are participating in a built-in structure of toxic hyper-masculinity that, if left unchecked, could lead potential fighters down a path towards far-right extremism.
"This is the most raw form of fighting," Hooi, who is not affiliated with any far-right groups, wrote during our interview. "We compete in these events to satisfy an inner feeling—an urge for blood like in the gladiator times."
First published at Insider in May 2022.
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